With gas prices near all-time highs, telecommuting is becoming a win-win for companies and their staff — leaving workers paying less for gas and offering hidden benefits for employers.
Telecommuting has moved beyond a scheme to ease the struggles of stressed-out workers to a system that saves money for company and employee alike, companies and experts say. Companies can keep workers they might otherwise lose, while workers can count the benefit in terms of cold, hard cash, they say.
Opting to let employees work from home as fuel prices have risen, Florida's Kissimmee Utility Authority managed to retrieve the experience and skills of a veteran employee in the billing department who quit last year.
She now telecommutes from a new home 746 miles away.
"I love it. I'm saving gas by not having to go out to do another job," said the employee, Debbie Brandt, from her home in Forest, Virginia.
The utility's customer service workers who have take up telecommuting have proven more productive at home, handling more calls than they did when working in the office, said Jef Gray, Kissimmee's vice president of information technology.
"Here come higher fuel prices again, and again we've got folks who want to work from home and say, 'It would help me with the cost,"' he said. "It's telecommuting to the rescue. Everybody wins."
The practice of telecommuting has taken off in recent years as advances in telecommunications have enabled employees to work efficiently at home on computers and telephones.
Average U.S. regular gasoline prices hit record highs of more than $3 last September after Hurricane Katrina before dropping to nearly $2 in December, but have again jumped this month to an average of $2.91 per gallon, according to federal data.
Roughly 40 million U.S. workers telecommute on occasion, taking advantage of technology to work away from their office, said the International Telework Association and Council.
While prices at the pump may inspire workers to daydream about telecommuting, it's the threat of losing those workers that helps get employers interested, said Chuck Wilsker, head of The Telework Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"In the next few months, it's going to reach the cross-over point where employees are going to say, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore,"' he said.
"Employers generally grow interested in telecommuting when they might lose key employees," he said.
Higher gas prices could push Kris Hake to full-time telecommuting in her job as a senior program manager for Sun Microsystems Inc, some 300 miles from her home in Mount Shasta, California. These days, she commutes to the office every other week or less.
"If we get over $4 a gallon, I may be home full time. There's a breaking point," she said.
Sun says more than 15,000, or about half its employees, participate in its program that allows them to work from home.
On average, the employees save two hours a week in commute time and they are a third more productive, according to Sun Microsystems.
Companies can use telecommuting to lure top talent, said Tim Kane, a senior manager at Deloitte Consulting in Pittsburgh, where most employees participate in a so-called Virtual Workplace.
"If you go out into the marketplace today and offer someone the cash compensation, the benefits package and the flexibility of 'We allow you to telecommute,' a lot of people look at that and say, 'Wow, that's money in my pocket,"' Kane said.
"For years, it's been helping with the work-life balance. Now you've got a monetary component as well," he said. "If you can skip running your engine and burning through gasoline two or three days a week, considering the price of gas today, that's a very real savings,' said Kane.
Nevertheless, not all employers are on board. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., global outplacement consultants, a survey taken after fuel prices rose in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year showed only 1 percent of 499 respondents said their companies were allowing more telecommuting.